December 9, 2012

The big shipping news

The expansion of the Panama Canal has U.S. ports readying deeper channels and businesses gearing up to ship goods more cheaply.

By MIMI WHITEFIELD McClatchy Newspapers

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Panama Canal
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The freighter America Express enters locks in the Panama Canal as another freighter exits, at right, at a lower water level. After the expansion is completed, in 2015 or later, the canal will be able to accommodate the larger ships that are revolutionizing international trade.

Carl Juste/Miami Herald

Panama Canal
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Construction of the bigger locks in the Panama Canal is a round-the-clock operation employing 13,000 people.

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If construction of the original Panama Canal, which was completed in 1914, was the moonshot of its era, the current canal project also is something of an engineering marvel.

Some 4.2 million cubic meters of concrete -- about 40 percent more than for the original canal -- will be poured by the time the new three-chambered locks are completed.

Each 180-foot-wide, 1,400-foot-long chamber could accommodate the Empire State Building laid on its side. The gates for the locks, which are being built in Italy, will soar 10 stories high.

The canal's new set of locks will allow a ship with a 160-foot beam to pass with ease. The current canal can accommodate only ships that are no more than 106 feet wide and 965 feet long. Some of the largest ships in this category -- with containers stacked seven-deep on their decks -- look like they're barely able to squeeze through today's locks.

Most of these vessels carry around 5,000 standard 20-foot containers. But the post-Panamax behemoths can stretch the length of three football fields and will carry as many as 13,000 containers as they make the eight-to-10-hour journey through the canal.

In terms of tonnage, they're three times as heavy as current Panama Canal ships, hence the need for deeper channels and wider locks.

The canal expansion isn't about moving more ships so much as accommodating bigger ones. Since 1965, the number of ships traversing the canal annually has remained at about 14,000, but the tonnage they transport has tripled.

"The business of the canal is to move cargo, not vessels. It's basically how much tonnage can you move. The expansion makes the canal much more efficient," said Alberto Aleman, the former chief executive of the Panama Canal Authority.

The authority charges as much as $400,000 for a container ship to use the canal, and it's working out fees for the new locks.

"We need to make sure we attract volume, so we don't want to charge prices that will be too high," said Rodolfo R. Sabonge, vice president for market research and analysis.

He said the fee schedule also needs to provide enough incentive so shippers will continue to send smaller ships through the current locks rather than switching all their cargo to post-Panamax vessels.

Currently three sets of locks -- two on the Pacific side and one on the Atlantic side -- help ships step up or down to the water level of Gatun Lake, an artificial lake that is 85 feet above sea level, and they'll continue to function for smaller ships after the expansion is completed.

The expanded section will use much of the existing canal, whose channels are being dredged to make them wider and deep enough for post-Panamax ships, but it will operate with just a single set of locks on the Pacific side instead of the current two.

To connect the new Pacific locks to the original canal, a 3.8-mile access channel that runs parallel to the current canal is being dug.

As dump trucks carried out boulders from the excavation, the Cap Castillo, a container ship flagged in Monrovia, appeared to float on the horizon as it made its way through the nearby Pedro Miguel locks.

This is the only place along the 50-mile length of the canal where the old and new come together so dramatically.

Since the expansion began, some 25,000 people, about 90 percent of them Panamanian, have worked on various phases of the project.

Despite the scope of the expansion, it is still far different from the last century, when steam shovels gouged the channel out of the jungle with dirt trains running on tracks along the bottom of the trench to haul out tons of rock and earth.

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Additional Photos

Panama Canal
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A small cross marks the burial site of a worker who was part of the original construction of the Panama Canal by the French.


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